May 1, 2014 · 2 minutes

Snapchat's humble beginnings as "that sexting app" are starting to look like ancient history.

The company's evolution continues with Chat, a new feature that lets users send self-destructing text messages while also telling them when their friends are viewing the same conversation and allowing them to start a video chat, making the conversations feel more immediate than traditional text messages.

Chat is meant to make text-based communications more like real-world conversations, Snapchat chief executive Evan Spiegel said in an interview with the Verge. Those interactions aren't permanently stored on some company's data centers, and they aren't based on someone shouting something into the winds and (maybe) receiving a response a few hours later, which is how most messaging tools currently work.

Even Snapchat seems to realize that digital communications can't always mimic the real world. The company encourages its users to take a picture of a conversation they wish to view after they've left it -- a sharp contrast to its beginnings as a photo messaging tool that tattled whenever someone tried to save its ostensibly ephemeral images to their smartphones. There's no physical analog to taking a picture of a conversation.

That's what makes Snapchat so interesting. It isn't just trying to make mobile communication more like real-world conversations, and it isn't just building another messaging service atop the same interactions that have been used since the first text message was sent. It's trying to find a happy medium by creating new tools that take advantage of modern technologies while trying to preserve the human aspect of social interaction. Consider it a conversational cyborg.

Other companies are experimenting with blending digital convenience and human nature. Facebook recently announced a location-based feature that allows its users to share their general location with a select group of friends. This utility wouldn't exist without smartphones (it's not like people have an innate sense of where their friends are) but it also respects the fact that some Facebook users don't want to share information with everyone they've ever known.

It took Facebook a decade to realize that people don't leave their humanity behind when they go online. People still want to maintain some of their privacy. They want things to disappear when they're done with them. They want to know when someone is really paying attention to them. Facebook tried to make its users fit into its world instead of fitting into the real world.

Snapchat has understood those things since its founding. That's why its photo-sharing service isn't just a sexting platform. That's why Chat isn't yet another also-ran messaging platform competing with a dizzying number of other services. And that's why Facebook is starting to look more like Snapchat, instead of it being the other way around.

The future of communication looks a lot like its past, and the release of this messaging tool shows that Snapchat understands this better than any other social company around today.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]